What led to Ben-Gvir, Smotrich's leap in the election? - analysis

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich's Religious Zionist party had far more voters in the election last week than in previous elections.

Then-head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019.  (photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)
Then-head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019.
(photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)

Data from last week’s election show two population groups that stood out in their contribution to the more than doubling of the Religious Zionism Party (RZP) from six seats in the 2021 election to 14 this time, or in percentages, 5.1% of all votes in 2021 to 10.4%.

The first group consists of voters in religious-Zionist towns, settlements and even kibbutzim, which were won by former prime minister Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina Party in the previous election. While Yamina (Rightward) won 6.2% of the general vote in 2021, Shaked, now head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party (Jewish Home), won just 1.2% of the general vote this time. RZP attracted many of Yamina’s former voters.

For example, Efrat, which in 2021 voted 26% for RZP, this time almost doubled its vote to 48%; Givat Shmuel went from 15% to 24%, just beating out the Likud; Elkana went from 37% to more than 52%; Hoshaya doubled from 12% to 24.6%; Kfar Etzion from 18% to 28.5%; Tirat Zvi from 18% to more than 29%; and Sa’ad also almost doubled from 16% in 2021 to 30.3% in this election.

The second source of RZP’s rise was large cities that traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Likud, especially mixed cities that suffered from rioting during Operation Guardian of the Walls last May.

Some cities that experienced rioting went from more than doubling their votes for RZP to almost quadrupling them: Lod went from 3.9% to 15.5%; Beersheba from 5.4% to 15.7%; Ramle from 3.6% to 12.7%; Acre from 3.8% to 10%; Tiberias from 5.1% to 12.8%; and Jerusalem from 9.3% to 14.2%.

Cities that experienced rioting went from more than doubling their votes for RZP to almost quadrupling it: Lod went from 3.9% to 15.5%; Beersheba from 5.4% to 15.7%; Ramle from 3.6% to 12.7%; Acre from 3.8% to 10%; Tiberias from 5.1% to 12.8%; and Jerusalem from 9.3% to 14.2%.

 MK ITAMAR Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, and MK Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, at an election campaign event in Sderot earlier this month (credit: FLASH90) MK ITAMAR Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, and MK Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, at an election campaign event in Sderot earlier this month (credit: FLASH90)

Cities that traditionally voted for Likud and did not experience rioting but still registered significant leaps – some more than tripling their support for RZP – included Rishon Lezion from 2.8% to 9.7%; Netanya from 4.8% to 11.4%; Hadera from 3.4% to 10.4%; Ariel from 8.2% to 18.8%; and Eilat from 3.4% to 11.1%.

Interestingly, in a large number of these cities, the number of voters who chose Likud also rose, in some cases significantly. The support for RZP came either from people who did not vote in the previous election or those who voted for other parties. This is true for Lod, Ramle, Beersheba, Tiberias, Rishon Lezion, Netanya, Hadera, Ariel and Eilat. In Jerusalem and Acre, net support for the Likud dropped slightly.

While these two population groups – former Yamina voters and residents of Right-leaning cities – registered the largest rises in support for RZP, it is also important to note that a number of secular, Center-Left bastions also registered rises in support for the far-right religious party. In Tel Aviv, for example, support for RZP almost tripled from 1.7% to 4.5%, and it more than doubled in both Modi’in (3.9% to 10.4%) and Ramat Gan (2.9% to 7.1%).

How can this data be interpreted? 

Here is one way to interpret this data, although not based on thorough empirical research: Mainstream religious-Zionists voted for Bezalel Smotrich despite Itamar Ben-Gvir’s presence on the list, while secular/traditional voters in cities voted for Ben-Gvir despite Smotrich’s presence on the list.

Smotrich, unlike Ben-Gvir, ran alongside Bennett and Shaked on the Habayit Hayehudi/Ichud Leumi (Jewish Home/National Union) list in 2015 as well as in the April and September 2019 elections. In the April election, Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) faction also was part of that joint list, but then-leader Michael Ben-Ari was blocked from running, and Ben-Gvir did not make it into the Knesset.

Smotrich, not Ben-Gvir, was the magnet for mainstream religious-Zionist voters who voted for Yamina in the previous election but who no longer wanted to vote for Shaked. His faction included mostly middle-class, Ashkenazi religious-Zionists, including Ohad Tal, former secretary-general of World Bnei Akiva, a symbol of mainstream religious Zionism.

The Otzma Yehudit list, however, served as the magnet for mid- to lower-class voters in Likud cities who have very little to do with Smotrich. Ben-Gvir’s list included two secular representatives, Almog Cohen and Brig.-Gen. (res.) Zvika Fogel, and a more diverse mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

His focus on law and order especially resonated with the Jewish population in mixed cities who experienced the riots last May. But his appeal was broader than that: He managed to connect with voters on a personal level who were frustrated with the Likud.

The RZP list was thus a classic example of a merger that was greater than the sum of its parts, and Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s decision to conduct separate but coordinated campaigns enabled each to attract voters from different backgrounds.

Smotrich attracted voters who may not have felt completely comfortable with Ben-Gvir but overlooked his presence on the list, while Ben-Gvir attracted voters who otherwise would have had little to do with Smotrich.